Nigel Hayes' shot might be off, but Wisconsin's junior is finding other ways to contribute while working through his slump

While working through one of his worst shooting slumps, Wisconsin junior Nigel Hayes is still bringing his defense, a reason why the Badgers are advancing in the N.C.A.A. tournament.

MADISON - With each swish of the basketball, Nigel Hayes was either gaining confidence in his shot or sending a message to the media members waiting to talk to him following practice Tuesday night.

Media day for the University of Wisconsin came and went Tuesday with Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown and a handful of others coming and going for their media interviews while Hayes methodically worked his way around the arc at the Kohl Center court. With a manager rebounding, Hayes forced himself to make 20 shots at various points on the court, proving to himself and to those watching that he can put the ball in the hoop.

“It’s always tough when you’re used to scoring and you have a rough game or two,” Brown said, with Hayes hitting shots in the background, “but in the same token we know that he’s confident and he’ll be all right for the next game.”

Known as one of the hardest working guys on the team, Hayes shot 500 3-point shots following Monday’s practice, as well, going through the rigors of ironing out a shot that has caused him to fall into a funk that has lasted more than a week.

Entering Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup against Notre Dame (23-11) at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, Hayes is shooting 16.7 percent from the field (7 of 42) and has missed all 17 of his 3-point attempts in the three postseason games since scoring 30 points at Purdue.

“We’re in the Sweet 16, so maybe I shouldn’t have spent two hours, but it’s something I felt I needed to do,” Hayes said. “Mechanics, repetition and confidence. I still think I have the confidence, but maybe I needed a little kitchen, house maintenance work to get everything situated.”

Shooting 36.9 percent overall and 28.7 percent from 3-point range on the season, Hayes said the problems with his shot are mechanical, such as the placement of his left hand and not keeping his elbow in tighter to his body. They are some of the same problems that popped up earlier in the year following an offseason where Hayes made tweaks to his shot to improve his release.

He’s taking good shots, something that was emphasized during a film session with assistant coach Howard Moore Tuesday, but Moore is pushing for Hayes to find his rhythm attacking the basket earlier in games and not pass up those opportunities.

“If he has a chance to attack and he doesn’t take that opportunity, those are points you are leaving on the floor,” Moore said. “I showed him more of those situations opposed to showing him shots that he’s missing and critiquing every little thing about why he missed that shot. We’ve seen him make a lot of shots, but he’s missing a couple now. So the big emphasis for him now is to get something to the basket early and get some success going that way.”

Instead of criticize, Moore wanted to simplify things to get Wisconsin’s star player moving in the right direction.

“Xavier was corralling him so much that there weren’t too many angles to the rim,” Moore said. “When you get Bronson shooting the way he’s shooting, Vitto out there stretching the floor and Zak making some open threes, the floor is going to open up for him a little more.”

While Hayes describes his shooting as “poop,” he can take solace in the fact that he’s bringing energy on defense, a main reason Wisconsin has advanced. Having matured and committed to his defense to the point where he’s earning some of the tougher assignments, Hayes held Pittsburgh’s Jamel Artis to 4-for-10 shooting and Xavier’s leading scorer – Trevon Bluiett – to seven points on 3-for-11.

Hayes also has 13 rebounds and a 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the N.C.A.A. tournament, trying to find other ways to help when the shot isn’t falling.

“He's become a much better defensive player,” head coach Greg Gard said. “He was not, I don't think, dedicated to the defensive end of the floor months ago. He understands now that he can help us in that way. At his size, his mobility, I can put him on 3s, I can put him on 2s, I can put him on 4s or 5s. I think he's really understood now how important he is to our defensive scheme as a whole.”
Gard said he’s seen Hayes knock down enough shots over the course of the three seasons that he’s not overly concerned. He didn’t need to watch Hayes knock down shots at an impressive clip either while other players chatted with the media.

For all party’s concern, Hayes can get the job done. Now he just needs to do it when it matters.

“I’ve gotten my reps in [Monday] and [Tuesday],” Hayes said. “Hopefully Friday they’ll go in.”

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